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For Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, Broadway’s Cabaret was just the warmup. With The Anniversary Party, they’ve co-directed the ultimate ensemble meltdown. Chuck Stephens reports.

John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey

When actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, fresh from co-starring in the Broadway revival of Cabaret decided to write and direct their first feature together, expedience and experience demanded that they work with the material they had at hand: a dozen or so of their closest celebrity friends. The (relatively) big-budget home movie that resulted, The Anniversary Party, is a warts-and-all comedy about precarious marriages, cracked actors, and the after-effects of everyone's favorite rage, er ... rave drug. Leigh and Cumming may have had the emotional vérité of some of John Cassavetes off-Hollywood epics in the back of their minds when they began, but the film they have made turns out to be far more about greasepaint-less surface realities.

Confirming everyone’s worst assumptions about the off-camera narcissism and neuroses of Hollywood movie stars, The Anniversary Party strips off its clothes and jumps into the shark-filled pool of success with reckless abandon. The whole thing is fictional, of course, and no one in the cast – which includes Leigh, Cumming, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Beals – is actually playing themselves. Right? Just because someone in the film cries out, "But I am a possessive, fragile neurotic!" and you can hear the echoes all the way down to Malibu, that doesn’t mean that the bad and the beautiful are finally coming clean. Does it?

The Anniversary Party's plot revolves around a night in the lives of spouses Joe and Sally Therrian. Joe (Cumming), a novelist who is just about to direct a feature version of his book, a fictionalization (right?) of the couple’s rocky marriage, has just returned to Sally (Leigh), an actress, after several months of separation, and they have invited several of their friends (along with a couple of enemies) over to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Among the guests: acclaimed actor Cal Gold (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sophia (a radiant Phoebe Cates), who gave up her acting career to raise their kids; and Mac (John C. Reilly), a director who is fretful about the quality of Sally’s performance in his new film, and his wife Clair (needle-thin tic-bundle Jane Adams), an actress on the verge of her own 19th nervous breakdown. Parker Posey, Mina Badie and Gwyneth Paltrow – as the far-too-blonde ingenue who brings the Ecstasy to Joe and Sally’s all-night agony – round out the film’s safari into the dark of this Hollywood Hills tribe.

Leigh, who had just returned from shooting director Kristian Levring’s digital video The King Is Alive (a Dogme 95 feel-bad riff on the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland/"Hey kids, let’s put on a show" paradigm, with a group of stranded-in-the-desert thespians staging a sand-choked King Lear), knew that shooting digital would be the most expedient way to bypass the waiting-on-funding bottleneck at the intersection of Hollywood and Indie. Set in a glass-walled, mid-century modern house designed by Richard Neutra, and photographed by cinematographer John Bailey with Sony DSR-500 cameras, The Anniversary Party’s look cleverly underscores the film’s intimate surface tension: in one excruciatingly textural extreme close-up after another, Bailey’s lensing takes a scouring pad to the makeup-free faces of the stars.

Is The Anniversary Party decisive confirmation that the digi-film’s first indigenous genre is the Actor’s Home Movie? (Do Tony Shalhoub’s Made Up [see page 34], Ethan Hawke’s Cannes-bound Chelsea Walls and Campbell Scott’s Final confirm the trend?) Will the glitterati’s newfound digi-karma eventually run over the increasingly mangy Dogme? Chuck Stephens talks with Jennifer Jason Leigh (currently in Chicago working on Sam Mendes’s American Beauty—follow-up, Road to Perdition) and Alan Cumming (in New York for a theatrical revival of Nöel Coward’s Design for Living) about working together, writing for friends, and the truth beneath the fiction of celebrity’s starry skies.

Directors Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh on set. Photo by Peter Sorel.

FILMMAKER: The Anniversary Party is filled with double firsts for the two of you: you’re co-stars, co-writers, co-producers and co-directors. How did you sort all that out, and where did the whole thing begin?

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: Sitting around my kitchen table and brainstorming, basically. We had done Cabaret together, and I had made this film in Africa [The King Is Alive] which was a Dogme film, where we shot for six weeks but only seven-hour days. Alan was staying at my house afterward, we were talking about [the shoot], and I said, "You know, we could shoot a whole movie in three weeks if we shot normal film hours. Wouldn’t that be fun?" I had also just gone through a breakup, and so every creative idea I had at the time seemed to revolve around that. And of course, as always, when there's a breakup, you hope that you’ll get back together. So I guess there was a therapeutic impulse, too. It seemed to make sense that the film would be about a marriage in a precarious position with all the levels of denial and hope that get merged in that situation; the feeling of future and life ahead, when really the relationship is in such a precarious way. It’s just amazing what lengths people will go through to stay in relationships. At the same, we also knew we wanted to deal with the situation as a kind of a comedy of manners, and to write it for all our friends.

ALAN CUMMING: We both liked the idea of the story all taking place in one day and the idea of how your life can change in a night. Also, probably because we wrote the script in Jennifer’s house, we always viewed the house that Joe and Sally live in as one of the characters in the film, which was connected with the idea of living in a house that was not quite a home.

FILMMAKER: Had you known you wanted to use this particular Richard Neutra—designed house for the film?

LEIGH: No, but we knew we wanted it to be a mid-century modern house, and this one was just exactly right for the characters. There’s something very exposed about that house, that glass-back wall, something slightly dangerous. It could be cold, and at the same time incredibly inviting. There’s something very inside/outside about it: the whole "people who live in glass houses" thing.

FILMMAKER: Do you live in a mid-century modern house yourself?

LEIGH: No, I don’t. And that’s funny, because my house is this very warm, really old house. It’s very open, too, Craftsman-like, so you can see from one room into three other rooms, with very large archways. When John Bailey [the film’s d.p.] first saw my house, he said that the couple in the script would not be in the shape they're in if they'd lived in my house.

FILMMAKER: Were all of the characters written for these specific actors, or were there actual casting calls for some of the parts?

CUMMING: Every one was written – apart from Parker Posey, who came in as a last-minute replacement for someone else – with the actor in mind, which was good, because you could hear people’s voices, and you could write with their nuances and speech patterns in your head. We already knew all their little character traits, the words they use, their vocabulary.

FILMMAKER: It has the effect of playing with the viewer’s idea of who they think these actors must "really" be.

LEIGH: I know, and that was really fun, too, because no one in the film is really playing themselves, but they are playing versions of themselves.

FILMMAKER: Of the actors in the film, who surprised you the most?

CUMMING: Gwyneth surprised me a lot in terms of how willing she was to parody herself, but everyone surprised me in little ways. Some of the people that we thought would be easier to handle were more difficult to handle. Well, not more difficult, but they needed more attention and reassurance. It was interesting to see people who are really established and great actors but who are still very insecure about what they do. It’s kind of sad, actually.

FILMMAKER: Are you talking about Kevin Kline?

CUMMING: [laughs] Oh dear, I didn’t mention that. But that was really interesting, and that kind of made me, I don’t know, it makes you kind of want to change that, because you think, "Oh god, how sad if people genuinely do feel sometimes that they’re not good, when they’re brilliant." And they’ve got so many accolades and so much stuff.

FILMMAKER: Jennifer, how would you describe Alan as a director?

LEIGH: He’s very decisive, very clear. And he gets very strong, actually.

FILMMAKER: More so than as an actor?

LEIGH: There’s something so open and lovely about Alan as an actor, something that makes you really feel like anything is possible – a kind of unencumbered joy, really. Very light and buoyant. But as a director, he can be very, very clear and very direct, and not joke around.

CUMMING: I was kind of, like, the one who would say "Okay everybody, here’s what’s going on." It was like, I was the boy, so I did the shouting.

FILMMAKER: Were there particular directors you’d worked with in the past whose influence you felt you were bringing to this film?

John C. Reilly and Jane Adams.
LEIGH: I learned so much from Alan Rudolph and Robert Altman, and working with them turned out to be such incredibly happy, happy experiences. On Mrs. Parker[and the Vicious Circle] especially – which is where I met a lot of these people and where [Jennifer] Beals and I became really close – Alan Rudolph would have these dinners every night, and as the cast arrived, the dinners grew larger and larger and larger. It was such a celebration, and a great way to create history among the actors in a very quick amount of time. Altman, too, really encourages people to bring what they have to the party. I really learned a lot from [Georgia director] Ulu Grosbard about working with actors. And the Coens, because their working relationship is such an amazing thing to witness. Obviously, they’re brothers, and Alan and I are not siblings, but I thought about them a lot when we were working together because they just work together so effortlessly, and they both do everything.

CUMMING: So many directors, it’s all about communication and social skills, and yet so few directors actually have very good social skills that it’s really bizarre. But Jennifer knows what she wants, and we worked together so well, I kind of feel like I was directing myself. And after filming the way we did, we decided, in the credits, to have a slash: "Directed by Alan Cumming/Jennifer Jason Leigh" and "Produced by Jennifer Jason Leigh/Alan Cumming." We felt that we were so much one entity that it seemed too weird to put an "and" between our names.

FILMMAKER: Do you think of yourselves as actors who work from the exterior or the interior?

CUMMING: I don’t think in those terms at all. I think about who I am trying to be, I read the script, I listen to what everyone has to say, I try and think about what this person feels and thinks, and then I just become them. That’s what I do. It's not very difficult, it’s not a very complex process. I just think that, you know, people in the world are so unpredictable and odd, so there’s no right or wrong.

LEIGH: I do everything – whatever works, basically. There’s a lot of internal work that I do, but I also do a lot of research, and I always try to figure out how this person walks, how this person talks. All that stuff goes into it too, which I suppose could be thought of as exterior, but I have to know everything about them, including what they had for breakfast when they were a kid.

FILMMAKER: Having written this part for yourself, did you have to –

LEIGH: I didn’t have to do a lot of research, no!

FILMMAKER: Is your performance here really kind of a disgorgement of self?

LEIGH: Yes and no. I mean, I’m not Sally, but there’s a lot of Sally in me, certainly. But I’m not Sally – I have no pictures of myself in my house at all.

FILMMAKER: C’mon, you don’t have those Nan Goldin pictures of yourself in your house [from Harper’s Bazaar in 1993]?

LEIGH: Well, because she blew them up for the movie, I did keep two of them – but one of them is in my bathroom because I can’t have pictures of me in my house. The one with, like, the Marlboro man in the background, and I’m kind of looking down, it’s just such a brilliant photograph that I do have that in my kitchen. But I can’t – although I would have loved to have kept all of them, because there were four of them – I just can’t have pictures of myself up. I can’t look at myself. Alan is exactly the opposite: if you go to Alan’s house or Alan’s office, I’ve never seen so many pictures of, I mean, every magazine cover is framed! We are really different in that way.

FILMMAKER: The main image on Alan’s Web site is a photo of him in this kind of Ziggy Stardust, glam-rock makeup – it’s an extremely flamboyant celebration of self.

LEIGH: Oh yeah, he loves that, he loves it all. And I love photo shoots, I truly do, and I save everything, but they’re all in boxes, you know. I’ve never had a picture of myself up until these Nan Goldins, and one is literally in the kitchen. I always hope people just think it’s a brilliant photograph and don’t recognize that it’s me.

FILMMAKER: Alan, your character in the film is a novelist, and one of the refrains throughout has to do with the boundaries between fiction and reality. You’ve also written a novel here in "reality" that’s about to be published.

CUMMING: Yeah, and it’s called Tommy’s Tale, which is the name of Joe’s novel in the film. We couldn’t think of another name to call it, so we called it the name of my novel I’m writing. Turned out to be the biggest piece of advance publicity for a novel that’s ever been.

FILMMAKER: Is the novel autobiographical?

CUMMING: Sort of. It’s about a man who wants to have a baby, or comes to realize that he has this thing missing in his life and he can’t understand what it is, and it’s to have a baby. And it’s about how he doesn’t feel able or prepared or just isn’t in a relationship or situation that can facilitate that, so what do you do about it? That’s definitely something that I feel, so that’s kind of autobiographical. But apart from that, I always try to put elements of myself into every role I play, and the more I get of myself into something, the better I think it is. But that doesn't mean that I play myself all the time, you know?

FILMMAKER: Sounds like something your character in The Anniversary Party would say.

CUMMING: It’s obviously a very personal film, written for particular people, and a lot of the other actors in the film are saying things that they may have said, or there are some situations that really happened to those people, or variations on them. And yet that is still fiction, and we actually discuss this issue in the film. It's just an interesting concept that, I mean, people on the one hand understand it, but on the other hand, maybe acting and writing and directing is kind of difficult to grasp from the outside, and so people think that you must be purely relaying experiences, rather than using the experiences to make something else.

FILMMAKER: On the other hand, the film reinforces certain kinds of reality, particularly in its use of some very extreme close-ups. There’s an almost unnerving textural reality that the look of digital lends to the actor’s faces, a frankness about physicality that seems to merge with the ideas of emotional intimacy and self-examination in the script. Was that something you were striving for in using digital, or were those close-ups something that scared you once you saw them?

LEIGH: No, they didn’t scare me, because I so trusted John Bailey, but I agree, there is a definite sense of these people as being under a microscope. But the simple reason why we chose to shoot on digital was financial. We couldn’t have made this movie on film; we didn’t have the budget and we didn’t have the time. And there’s a speed at which you can shoot digital that was appealing, although that’s something Bailey would disagree with, because Bailey does light and Bailey is incredibly fast. But, for example, just not having to check if there’s a hair in the gate, I’m telling you, it saves like an hour a day. Not having to change reels, having two cameras going all the time ...

CUMMING: Working with video also affects your acting in positive ways, especially if you haven’t stopped to see the past two takes, and you’re going through it again, and you just keep rolling. Your shoulders come down a few inches, and that really helps the work.

FILMMAKER: Roughly how many hours of footage did you shoot?

LEIGH: Altogether we had about 30 hours, which is actually not extraordinary.

FILMMAKER: Kind of a typical ratio, really.

LEIGH: Yeah. And we did not shoot long days. The longest day we ever had was 14 hours, and that was our last day of shooting. So we were really shooting like a normal 10 to 12 hour day, but because we were hyperly well prepared, we were also free enough that if on the day, we saw a way something that could be shot that was better than what we had thought of or planned out, we went with that.

FILMMAKER: How many weeks did you spend editing?

LEIGH: We had a normal 10 weeks. Because you need to have – especially when you shoot something digitally – you need at least a normal post if not a longer post because you have more film. But on this, because we were pretty conservative and we also had to do things for speed, the normal amount of takes was three. The most I think we ever did was eight takes, ever.

FILMMAKER: Alan, I have to ask you about your scene in Eyes Wide Shut – the scene in which you’re coming on to Tom Cruise. What sort of direction did Kubrick gave you during the scene, and how many days did you work on it?

CUMMING: Five days. Normally, a scene like that would be shot in a half a day or a day; in our film, it would have been shot before breakfast. Basically, [Kubrick] would just let me go, let me play and let me try different things. It was just such fun. And every little moment and nuance was important to him, and it was a really good thing for me, because I’ve done so many films where you sort of arrive, do your schtick and go away. A lot of the time in film, you just sort of wing it, but with him, it felt like you were really, really polishing something to make it as good as it possibly could be. So it was quite a lot of direction for that wee scene. I felt like he wouldn’t actually let me go home until it was as good as he thought it could be. It was a really great week of my life.

FILMMAKER: One of the fascinating things about Eyes Wide Shut generally, and that scene in particular, is the way that it so gleefully baited all the tabloid rumors about Cruise’s sexuality.

CUMMING: That’s why people still talk about that scene in a way that is so out of proportion for what it was, but I think that’s partly why it was so successful: a bit of light relief in a kind of hard-going narrative. But the baggage that Tom brought to that and the way that it was kind of being parodied, the envelope was definitely pushed.

FILMMAKER: Was Cruise as supportive in developing and refining those moments?

CUMMING: Very much so. He was faultless – very willing to have a bash at different things. I thought that was really brave of him as well, that he was cool with that. He is obviously pretty sure of himself and confident. We did it so many different ways, and he was so focused every time.

FILMMAKER: Jennifer, did your involvement in Eyes Wide Shut overlap Alan’s at all?

LEIGH: No, we only met on Cabaret.

FILMMAKER: What was your experience of working with Kubrick?

LEIGH: I loved it so much. He was just an incredible man, you know. And I had such a great time shooting it, and I was so sad when I couldn’t go back for the reshoots, I can’t even tell you; it was really, really sad. But then I was so happy that I had had that experience.

FILMMAKER: How long were you on [the Eyes Wide Shut shoot]?

LEIGH: I was there for 10 days.

FILMMAKER: Is the part that you were playing still in the film?

LEIGH: Yeah, it was the part of the woman whose father has died.

FILMMAKER: So both you and Alan had a similar function in the film: coming on to Tom Cruise.


FILMMAKER: Speaking of star-lust: Alan, I know you are doing something for HBO, a series about celebrity?

CUMMING: We’ve been developing it for a long time, and now we're just trying to get the first episode together. It’s kind of about celebrity, but I think it’s also about – well, it’s kind of about me. This idea about how odd it is when you come into a culture that’s alien to you, and you achieve a lot of success very quickly, and how difficult it is to deal with. Partly the reason that you become so successful is that you are so different and odd, and then because you are so odd and come from a different culture, you are so handicapped in how to deal with your success. You see what I mean? So there’s that conundrum, and I’m quite intrigued by it. It’s about all the strange, weird things that happened to me, really, and about being behind the scenes with some sort of celebrity that’s not really a huge celebrity, but more a kind of a cultish person. That's something I’ve experienced – all of the bother of being a celebrity but none of the massive paychecks.


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